JERUSALEM -- A seriously divided Israeli government yesterday rejected a Red Cross request to take relief supplies to 415 deported Palestinians through an Israeli-controlled buffer zone in southern Lebanon.
If aid is to reach the exiles in their makeshift tent camp, it will have to pass through territory under Lebanese control, the government said, because as far as it is concerned the Palestinians are not its responsibility, but Lebanon's.
But after Israel's decision, Lebanon reiterated its position that it will not be used by Israel as "a dumping ground" and that it will continue to refuse to allow food, water and medicine to reach the Palestinians. The deportees are stranded on a barren expanse of southern Lebanon between Israeli and Lebanese checkpoints.
Because of the Lebanese position, the International Committee of the Red Cross had turned to the Israelis, asking them for permission to send relief trucks to the tent camp through the security zone that Israel has carved for itself in a strip of southern Lebanon.
Meeting in emergency session, the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin split almost down the middle over what to do. Mr. Rabin led a slender majority that said no to the Red Cross, while Foreign Minister Shimon Peres led the pro-aid camp.
It was no retreat from the nearly unanimous Cabinet decision last week to summarily deport the Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as Islamic fundamentalists who instigated a surge in attacks on Israeli security forces and sought to sabotage the Middle East peace talks.
Rather, the division was between those who accuse Lebanon of cynically exploiting the situation and forcing Israel to stand firm, and those who accuse Lebanon of cynically exploiting the situation but conclude that Israel has to help nonetheless, if only not to look bad.
In the end, Mr. Rabin had seven other ministers on his side and Mr. Peres five, for an 8-6 vote. Two ministers abstained.
"The Israeli government sees no reason to comply with the request of the Red Cross," the Cabinet said in a statement that repeated its insistence that the exiles are now in Lebanon's hands. And while Israel has been condemned around the world for having expelled the Palestinians from its occupied territories, it added its own condemnation of Lebanon for what it called "cynical behavior" in keeping food out but letting television cameramen reach the exiles "for propaganda purposes."
Later, Mr. Rabin dismissed Lebanese actions as "a political ploy" aimed at establishing "a permanent link between Israel and the deportees." He was quoted in the newspaper Maariv as accusing the Red Cross of having "turned into a partner in this charade."
Some ministers who had supported him said that they were concerned that if Israel were to let relief supplies pass through its territory, it might be seen as tacitly accepting responsibility for the Palestinians.
"If the matter had been a truly humanitarian problem, Israel would certainly have allowed food to be transported through its territory, " Mr. Rabin later told members of a kibbutz.
Added Housing Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer: "Once we have taken a decision, we are determined not to change the situation."
In the other camp were three ministers from the left-wing Meretz bloc and three liberal-to-left Labor Party elders, including Mr. Peres. Their view was expressed by Energy Minister Amnon Rubinstein of Meretz: "It's our duty above all as human beings to render whatever assistance we can.
"There was no division of opinion that it is the responsibility the Lebanese government to supply food and medicine to the deportees," Mr. Rubinstein told the Israeli radio. "They [the Lebanese] are cynical about the way they exploit the situation. But we thought that for the sake of Israel's interest, we should accept the request of the Red Cross."
The split Cabinet vote shows the continued discomfort of some government members on the left who supported this mass deportation even though in the past, as part of the political opposition, they denounced expulsions of Palestinians carried out on a much smaller scale.
The general view of most foreign countries, encapsulated last week in a United Nations Security Council resolution, is that the deportations violate international law and that the exiles should be returned to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
But yesterday's vote also underlined that the Palestinians' situation is as much a political tug-of-war as a humanitarian concern. Among other things, the exiles themselves say they do not want Lebanon's help because they believe that the longer they stay where they are, under harsh conditions, the greater the world pressure will be on Israel to take them back.
Moreover, it is not entirely clear how badly off they are.
It snowed overnight, and a spokesman for the group, Dr. Abdul Aziz Rantisi of Gaza, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, "The cold was severe, and we had no heating fuel."
On Thursday, the Palestinians said that they had fasted during the day to preserve food stocks that had dwindled to some vermicelli and potatoes, with drinking water completely gone.
But yesterday, an Associated Press reporter said that the deported men were cooking rice, chickpeas and canned meat, and that some had eggs.